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Antiabortion Group Objects to Iowa Clinics' Use of Videoconferencing for Medical Abortion

Antiabortion Group Objects to Iowa Clinics' Use of Videoconferencing for Medical Abortion

May 18, 2010 — To improve abortion access for women in remote areas, physicians affiliated with Planned Parenthood of the Heartland are using videoconferencing and a remotely operated pill-dispensing system to authorize and observe women's use of medical abortion drugs at clinics up to 190 miles away, the Des Moines Register reports.

Troy Newman, president of the antiabortion-rights group Operation Rescue, said his organization learned of the system through an anonymous tip and has filed a complaint with the Iowa Board of Medicine. The group contends use of the system violates a state law that requires physicians to perform abortions, and it wants the state to revoke the medical license of Susan Haskell, medical director for PP Heartland.

Tom Ross, a Planned Parenthood physician who uses the system, said that it was vetted by private lawyers and that he is confident the medical board will side with clinics.

During the last two years, about 1,500 women have used the system, which operates on a private communications network that is separate from the Internet. The process is used only for abortions during the first nine weeks of pregnancy.

Before a medical abortion, women at the Iowa clinics receive a pregnancy test, undergo counseling about abortion alternatives and watch a video explaining the medical abortion process. Women also receive an ultrasound, the results of which are sent electronically to the doctor.

A woman who opts for the videoconferencing option sits in front of a camera-equipped computer monitor, talks with the doctor about her medical history and goes over any questions. The doctor then uses a computer command to open a drawer that contains two medication bottles for the patient.

The doctor watches the patient remove the first drug -- mifepristone -- from one of the bottles and take the medication. The patient is instructed to take home the second bottle -- which contains four pills of misoprostol, the second drug in the regimen -- and dissolve the pills between her cheek and gums.

There is a 24-hour phone line for patients to report any complications, and all patients are instructed to return to the clinic in two weeks to confirm that they are no longer pregnant. In about 2% of cases, mifepristone and misoprostol do not end a pregnancy; most women then opt for a surgical abortion.

Board of Medicine Reviewing Complaint

Mark Bowden, executive director of the state medical board, said the agency is responding to Operation Rescue's concerns, but he noted that the review does not imply wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood. "The board sends out notices to anyone who files a complaint, telling them that we got the complaint and we're looking into it," he said (Leys, Des Moines Register, 5/16).